For most, the mention of Carnaval conjers up images of scantily clad women gyrating their way along colorful parade routes. However, there are some Carnaval celebrations around the world that, although less raucous, still offer tons of fun. Guest contributor, Kirsten Gallagher, recently had the opportunity to explore Quebec City’s annual celebration and is here to tell us all about this beautiful winter travel destination.
Like many travellers who have voyaged far and wide, I’m guilty of missing what’s in my own backyard. Although Canadian, I hadn’t seen much of my own country until recently, when I decided to spend a long weekend in Quebéc City during Carnaval, and take in its winter festivities. I found Québec City (simply referred to as “Québec” by francophones) to be more charming than I had ever imagined, and all the more so because of Carnaval’s frosty touches.
For those who are unfamiliar, Carnaval (the spelling here is intentional; “carnaval” is French for “carnival”) is a multi-week winter celebration that straddles the months of January and February. There are many traditions associated with Carnaval – the jaunty, braided sash worn by merry-makers (la ceinture fléchée), the long, tube-like horn blasted walking through the streets and at the sides of parades (la trompette), the boozy, warm bevy sipped and sold on corners (le caribou) – but Carnaval is known best for its instantly recognizable man-about-town: Bonhomme de Neige, a snowman sporting a sassy red cap and sash.
The Old Town of Québec (le vieux quartier) is enclosed by stone walls, built in the 17th century. It’s divided into upper and lower parts (La Haute-Ville and La Basse-Ville). The streets are hilly and meandering, like many towns and villages peppering Europe. Overlooking the Old Town is Château Frontenac, a grand and graceful hotel, the closest thing Canada has to a fairy-tale castle.
One of the first things I did when I arrived was negotiate a very steep set of stairs (un escalier casse-cou) leading down to Rue de Petit Champlain in the lower part of the Old Town, where I wandered along, window-shopping (faire la lèche vitrine) and admiring the work of local artisans. During Carnaval, Rue de Petit Champlain and other little streets are decorated with beautifully carved ice sculptures kept frozen and intact by the sub-zero temperatures typical of the season. Although I made sure to wear snow-pants and a thick sweater under my jacket whenever I went outside, I was still incredibly grateful for the warming stations throughout the Old Town. When the cold gets to be too much, there are blazing fires to huddle around. That’s where I warmed up and traded notes with other tourists while knocking back a caribou or two.
There are many free activities during Carnaval; for example, it costs nothing to take in the atmosphere of the Old Town, or to have a look at the ice sculptures or snow sculptures (the snow sculptures can even be seen as they’re in the process of being constructed). There are two parades (les défilés) that take place during Carnaval: one on the outskirts of the city and one that winds its way through the Old Town.
Although really meant for families, the parades are nevertheless good fun for all. I braved the nighttime cold in nearby Charlesbourg to catch sight of Bonhomme dancing on a float (I was hell-bent on seeing Bonhomme). The annual canoe race is also free and an absolute must-see event. Standing on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, I watched teams not only paddle ferociously but, in the middle of the river, get out of their canoes and stand on ice floes in order to lift them up and over frozen obstacles. Other activities and venues, like Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, can be accessed by purchasing l’Effigie ($15 CAN), a wearable likeness of Bonhomme.
One of the highlights from my long weekend in Quebéc City was a simply toboggan ride down a slide (une glissade) near Château Frontenac. One evening after tucking into a rabbit cassoulet, I towed a rented toboggan up a steep-but-not-too-steep hill and whipped down it again several times, all the while managing to appreciate the winter wonderland around me; the snow gently falling and the light from the windows of the Château Frontenac glowing in the background. I felt like I was in the middle of a snow globe that had just been shaken and set down.
Quebéc City is a truly magical place in the wintertime, with an atmosphere that simply can’t be matched by any other city in North America. Don’t be put off by the colder climate – bundle up and enjoy the Old Town, the distinct francophone culture, and all the goings-ons of Carnaval.